So Long a Letter
So Long a Letter
by Mariama Bâ
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in urban Senegal from the 1950s to the 1970s; published in French (as Une si longue lettre) in 1979, in English in 1981.
In a letter written to an old friend, a newly widowed schoolteacher reflects upon her life as a Muslim woman in Senegal.
Born in Dakar, Senegal, in 1929, Mariama Ba was raised as a Muslim by her maternal grandparents. During school holidays Ba studied the sacred text the Qur’an under the guidance of the Imam of the main mosque in Dakar. Ba later became a primary schoolteacher and an activist in the feminist movement in Senegal, in which she participated until her death in 1981. A wife and mother, Bâ married a Senegalese politician, with whom she had nine children. Though the marriage ended in divorce it provided inspiration for her first novel, So Long a Letter, noted for its striking depiction of women in Islamic culture and its blistering treatment of polygamy. The novel has been hailed as the most emotionally realistic portrayal of female life in African fiction of the time.
Islam in Senegal
In So Long a Letter the rituals and observances of Islam form a compelling social backdrop against which the widowed Ramatoulaye struggles to come to terms with her bereavement. In the 1970s, the decade in which the novel closes, more than 80 percent of the Senegalese population was Muslim, while 6 percent was Christian and the remainder worshipped deities indigenous to their particular region (Nelson, p. vii).
The spread of Islam into Senegal and other regions of Africa may have begun as early as the eighth century. Approximately 100 years earlier, in 610 c.e., an Arab merchant—Muhammad—began to preach a series of revelations that he believed came to him from God through the angel Gabriel. Angered by his denunciation of local religious beliefs, the people of Mecca rose up against Muhammad, who fled with his followers to Medina in 622. His flight, called the hegira, marked the beginning of a new religious calendar and a new faith, Islam. Islam’s effects in the area that eventually became Senegal were not significantly felt until the eleventh century when a ruler of the Tekrur kingdom converted to Islam and persuaded his family and many of his subjects to adopt the new faith. Most mass conversions occurred during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as many West Africans turned to the certainties of a strict religious faith to help them cope with the social and political upheaval resulting from colonization by France and Great Britain.
The particular practice of Islam among the Senegalese includes devotion to the prescriptions of universal Islam, such as complete submission to the will of God (“Allah”), and the observation of Islamic customs specific to the geographic region and to the ethnic group occupying that region. For example, many Senegalese Muslims observe additional pilgrimages beyond the one all followers of Islam must make to Mecca. Members of Islamic brotherhoods, such as the Muridiya and Tidjaniya, may journey at any time to the home of a spiritual leader or the tomb of a founder. The basic tenets of the Islamic faith, however, remain the same. Devout Muslims prove their dedication to Allah by performing the “five pillars” of Islam: the recitation of the creed “There is no god but God and Muhammad is his prophet”; daily prayers at specific hours of the day; fasting from sunrise to sunset during the ninth lunar month of Ramadan; the giving of alms collected at the beginning of the year and at the end of Ramadan; and the pilgrimage to Mecca, which all Muslims must undertake once in their lives. Approximately 2,000 to 3,000 Senegalese Muslims attempt the journey annually. One who completes the pilgrimage may then use the title al-Hajj before his or her name and wear a green turban. In the novel, Modou Fall, Ramatoulaye’s husband, obtains a much younger second wife by offering the girl’s grasping parents various expensive gifts, including money to finance their pilgrimage to Mecca, where they acquire the titles al-Hajji and al-Hajja. Also, Islamic precepts dictate Ramatoulaye’s practices after she is widowed, from her “purifying baths” to her “changing of mourning clothes every Monday and Friday” and her mandatory grieving period of four months and ten days (Bâ, So Long a Letter, p. 8).
Women and Islam
Like Christianity, Islam comprises worship of a sole male deity and confers greater authority upon men than women. Men are the acknowledged heads of their household, to whom their wives and other female relatives must defer upon all matters. For many years marriage and motherhood were still considered the most important goals in the life of a Muslim woman. The ideal was for men to serve as breadwinners, while women raised children and maintained an orderly household. Some modern Muslim women, however, have pursued higher education and found work outside the home. Such work must be deemed acceptable by the religious community. Muslim traditionalists, for example, require that women select jobs appropriate to “the feminine vocation,” such as teaching and women’s medicine (Jomier, p. 77).In the novel, Aissatou’s scheming mother-in-law, Aunty Nabou, rears a young niece in the strictest precepts of Islam, trains her in the domestic arts, then selects an appropriate profession—midwifery—for her, declaring, “The profession you will learn [in the State School of Midwifery] is a beautiful one…. [Y]ou will acquire grace for your entry into paradise for helping at the birth of the new followers of Mohammed, the prophet. To tell the truth, a woman does not need too much education” (So Long a Letter, p. 30).
The Islamic practice of polygamy—the crux of So Long a Letter—dates back to the sixth century and was practiced by Muhammad himself. Proponents of polygamy defend the practice on the grounds of Muhammad’s own example, the supposedly greater sexual needs of the male, and the likelihood of war reducing the proportion of men to women in the population. The Qur’an permits polygamy on two conditions—first, the number of wives must not exceed four; and second, the husband must treat all of his wives equally, not favoring one over the others. Women, however, are permitted only one husband at a time, and unlike Muslim men, cannot marry out of their faith. Moreover, while either party is allowed to dissolve the marriage, it is usually easier for a man to obtain a divorce.
After independence in 1960 Senegal passed a new marriage law allowing a couple to choose between monogamy or polygamy (with up to four wives) in a prenuptial contract. Husband and wife appear in court to record the contract, with the woman sometimes learning only at this point that her husband plans on polygamy. Apparently such women often grow so enraged that they force their spouse to settle for monogamy or lose the bride price, the money he paid her family to make her his spouse. Other new marriage laws have followed, mostly to protect women. In 1974 Senegal outlawed repudiation, the failure to honor the marriage contract, legislating that marriages be dissolved only through a divorce granted by the court. Polygamy nevertheless persisted after this date, albeit with some alterations. New difficulties have arisen because of migration from rural areas to cities. School counselors in Dakar report, for example, that the children of polygamous marriages have had a hard time developing a sense of family identity in the city, where they live with their mother in a separate household rather than in a collection of contiguous households, as is the case in a village compound. Their father, rotating among the dispersed households that he heads, is often absent from theirs. Still, women in various parts of Africa continue to attach themselves to polygamous men, either as a first wife, like the protagonists in So Long a Letter, or as a subsequent wife. Those who become subsequent wives usually marry men who are middle-aged or older. Rarely do polygamous marriages involve very young men, because of the brideprice and the expense of contributing to more than one household. This helps explain the husbands’ belated decision in Bâ’s novel to take a second wife; in both cases the men are middle-aged rather than young.
Recently women in a number of African countries have shown a preference for the position of second or even unofficial wife rather than first wife. One reason for such unions is that a woman who lives with a man outside the system can hold on to her own property. Moreover, the first wife “is less and less the envy of today’s young women” (Coquery-Vidrovitch, p. 217). Staying single, on the other hand, is not yet a popular option. Most educated urban women of the late twentieth century show a preference for entering into a monogamous or polygamous relationship with a man. They ask, often in vain, that their husbands keep them informed about their plans. Old perceptions still persist. Women have not yet demanded en masse to be treated as equals with the opposite sex. They still regard the man as superior and the woman as obligated to serve him and bear his children. There have been stirrings, though. A number of educated women who are dissatisfied with the status quo have formed feminist groups, such as Senegal’s Yewwu Yewwi (“Women Stand Up”), to contend with tradition-related problems.
In So Long a Letter, Ramatoulaye and Aissatou experience polygamy firsthand, when their husbands marry younger wives. Significantly, both husbands fail to honor the Qur’an’s second condition of treating their wives equally. Only Assiatou rebels. Her husband, Mawdo, who maintains a separate household with young Nabou, tries to persuade Aissatou to stay in the marriage, but she denounces his reasoning as flawed, even hypocritical: “You want to draw a line between heartfelt love and physical love. I say that there can be no union of bodies without the heart’s acceptance, however little that may be” (So Long a Letter, p. 31). Unwilling to accept an untenable situation, she leaves Mawdo, taking her children with her.
DEATH, BURIAL, AND MOURNING
Islamic ceremonies involving the dead can be as elaborate as those involving the living. After death the corpse must receive a ritual bath; embalming is not permitted, though the body may be scented before being enveloped in a plain white shroud. According to Islamic law, burial should take place the same day as the death, if at all possible. When the body is interred, it is positioned in the grave so that its head is turned towards Mecca. The family of the deceased also adheres to specific rituals following their bereavement. A three-day mourning period ensues, All of the deceased’s relatives live under one roof, receiving visits of condolence and listening to readings from the Qur’an each evening. The full mourning period lasts 40 days, although a widow must remain in seclusion for the even longer interval of four months and ten days. In the novel, Ramatoulaye observes all of the necessary rituals following the sudden death of her husband. The jarring presence of her in-laws and co-wife, Binetou, however, soon has her almost welcoming her mandatory period of solitude: “My heart concurs with the demands of religion. Reared since childhood on their strict precepts, I expect not to fail. The walls that limit my horizon for four months and ten days do not bother me” (So Long a Letter, p. 8).
An independent Senegal
During the nineteenth century, France and Great Britain competed for control over West Africa. By 1895 Senegal had been officially recognized as a French colony, along with French Sudan and Mauritania in the same region. During the early to mid-twentieth century, France consolidated its hold over French West Africa, founding schools, building railroads, and encouraging the cultivation of such lucrative crops as peanuts, maize, and cassava.
Of all the colonies in “Black Africa,” Senegal was arguably the most susceptible to French policies of assimilation, in part because the French government granted full citizenship rights to Africans born in the “Four Communes”—Dakar, Gorée, Rufisque, and Saint Louis. These African citizens had the right to “participate in modern electoral politics [and] hold political office (if they met certain educational qualifications)” (Geller, p. 9). Such privileges also allowed them to rise, economically and socially, above the Senegalese of the interior, whom the French regarded as subjects. Although this Senegalese “elite” constituted only about 5 percent of the population, its members made the most of their educational and professional opportunities, hoping to achieve equality with the French. In the novel, Ramatoulaye vividly recalls how competing French and Senegalese influences shaped “New Africa” and the strain resulting from the attempt to reconcile two vastly different cultures:
The assimilationist dream of the colonist drew into its crucible our mode of thought and way of life. The sun helmet worn over the natural protection of our kinky hair, smoke-filled pipe in the mouth, white shorts just above the calves, very short dresses displaying shapely legs: a whole generation suddenly became aware of the ridiculous situation festering in our midst.
(So Long a Letter, p. 24)
After World War II and the fall of Nazi Germany, France rethought its colonial policies towards black Africans. In 1945, 63 delegates—out of a total 600—representing the African colonies attended the National Assembly. These African delegates included Léopold Sedar Seng-hor and Lamine Guéye, two Senegalese deputies elected to the French Parliament, who were to play major roles in shaping their country’s political development. Senghor, Gueye, and the other African delegates were granted the opportunity to air publicly the grievances and aspirations of their countrymen. The African delegates received “strong support” from the Socialists and Communists; munists; the assembly itself resulted in an evaluation of colonial policy and “a draft plan for theunion of France and its colonies” (Nelson, p. 28).
In 1946 French citizenship was extended to the entire population of French West Africa—16 million people in eight colonies (Mauritania, French Sudan [now Mali], Guinea, Upper Volta, Ivory Coast, Dahomey, Niger, and Senegal). Senegal became an overseas territory, with representation in the French parliament and a territorial assembly of its own. Granted, the status of these former colonial subjects was that of second-or even third-class citizens: most of them still did not have the vote. The majority of those who could vote had to do so on a separate roll from the European residents; as a result, African votes were not considered to be worth as much in an election. Moreover, the powers of the new territorial assemblies were only advisory. Not surprisingly, Africans were disappointed by these limited reforms. They began questioning the viability of French assimilationist policies and became increasingly interested in achieving full independence as nations in their own right.
In 1956 the loi-cadre reforms led to universal suffrage in Senegal and broadened the powers of the 12 territorial assemblies of French Africa (the eight in West Africa, and four—Gabon, Middle Congo, Chad, and Oubangui-Shari—in Equatorial Africa), setting the stage for self-government among the erstwhile colonies. The federation of French West Africa gradually began to unravel, as more African countries expressed the desire for independence. In 1958 Senegal and the French Sudan formed the Mali Federation, which successfully obtained independence from France on June 20, 1960. Two months later Senegal seceded from the Mali Federation and became recognized as a separate country on August 25, 1960. A congress consisting of all the members of the legislature and of one delegate from each regional assembly and from each regional council unanimously elected Léopold Sédar Senghor as the first president of Senegal, an office he held until his retirement in 1980.
In So Long a Letter, Ba emphasizes, through Ramatoulaye’s thoughts and memories, the growing importance of education among native Senegalese. Western schools were first introduced into the region during the nineteenth century, when various Roman Catholic orders founded elementary schools to teach French and manual skills to Senegalese children.
In 1857 Louis Faidherbe, Governor of Senegal, laid a stronger foundation for Western education by establishing more schools—for both European and African children—which he later organized into a state school system. Schools in French West Africa frequently served a dual purpose. They trained farmers, teachers, clerks, and interpreters to assist the French in running the colony, and they also introduced French culture to the African people, an important objective during the colonial era. Thus, during the twentieth century, many Senegalese schools—especially in urban areas—adopted an educational system that increasingly resembled that found in French schools. Secondary education for African students received a boost in 1911 with the founding
SENEGAL’s FIRST PRESIDENT
Born in 1906, Léopold Sédar Senghor soon became an influential figure in Senegalese politics and art. The son of a prosperous trader, Senghor at first aspired to the priesthood but realized, at age 20, that his true vocation lay elsewhere. In 1928 he went to Paris on a partial scholarship, continuing his education at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand and the Sorbonne. During his time abroad he met other black intellectuals, including Caribbean poet Aimé Céaire, and developed a deeper appreciation for African culture, which he believed had much to offer the modern world. When World War II broke out in 1939, Senghor was drafted; captured by the Nazis in 1940, he spent two years in a concentration camp, where he wrote some of his finest poems. On his release Senghor joined the French Resistance and, after the war, became increasingly involved in Senegalese politics. In 1948 Senghor, a moderate socialist, founded the Senegalese Democratic Bloc Party, a less radical group than the French Socialist Party, to which he had earlier belonged. During the 1950s Senghor opposed the loi-cadre reforms, which he felt undermined the concept of a federal government in Africa. Attempting to counteract the effects of the loi-cadre, he organized several parties that were committed to the cause of a federal African unity. His efforts contributed to the formation of the Mali Federation in 1958. After Senegal was recognized as an independent republic in 1960, Senghor became its first president. During his 20~year administration, Senghor strengthened political and economic ties between Senegal and its West African neighbors and worked to modernize his country’s agriculture. While popular in his prime, he became more revered as he aged, gaining a reputation as “father of his country.”
of the William Ponty Normal School, which offered separate training programs for prospective teachers and junior administrators in government and business. Closely modeled after French institutions, the William Ponty School consistently maintained high educational standards and boasted a diverse student body from all the French territories in Senegal; many of the school’s graduates went on to become part of “Africa’s educated elite” (Nelson, p. 157).
In the years following World War II Senegal undertook a new educational agenda: the population as a whole was to receive the basic education necessary to citizens of a Westernized society, while its more gifted students were to be prepared to assume leadership responsibilities in their own communities. During the 1950s schools were expanded and refurbished, enrollment increased, a scholarship program for advanced study abroad was introduced, and an institution of higher learning—later called the University of Dakar—was founded. In the novel, Ramatoulaye, Aissatou, and their contemporaries reap the immediate benefits of these changes. Nostalgically reflecting on her years at secondary school, Ramatoulaye remembers how “we were true sisters, destined for the same mission of emancipation” and eager to participate in “New Africa’s” agenda “for the promotion of the black woman” (So Long a Letter, pp. 15-16). She reserves special praise for the white headmistress who nourished her students’ dreams, aspiring to make them appreciate a multitude of civilizations without renouncing their own. It is because Ramatoulaye has enjoyed such an education that she can sympathize, to some extent, with her bitter co-wife, Binetou, who is pressured into leaving school just before graduation to marry the wealthy Modou.
The novel opens with Ramatoulaye, a middle-aged schoolteacher, writing to her old friend, Aissatou, with the stark news: “Yesterday you were divorced. Today I am a widow” (So Long a Letter, p. 1). Ramatoulaye’s husband of 30 years, Modou Fall, has succumbed to a sudden heart attack.
Ramatoulaye continues with her letter, describing Modou’s interment and the necessary Islamic rituals—the cleansing and clothing of the corpse—accompanying the event. Binetou, Modou’s much younger second wife, comes to stay at Ramatoulaye’s house for the funeral, but her presence irritates the older woman. Ramatoulaye also resents the way Modou’s sisters—newly arrived for the ceremony—seem to consider her 30-year marriage and Binetou’s 5-year marriage of equal importance, and hails the eventual departure of them all with relief. Later, a family meeting is held at her house and all of Modou’s most intimate secrets are exposed. Ramatoulaye, already embittered by her late husband’s abandonment of her and their children after his marriage to Binetou, is further shocked to learn that Modou died heavily in debt. Every penny of Modou’s salary—he was a technical adviser in the Ministry of Public Works—was spent to keep Binetou and her grasping mother in luxury. “Lady Mother-in-Law,” as Ramatoulaye calls her, demands that payments on Modou’s sumptuous new villa, in which her daughter lives, continue out of his estate. Ramatoulaye’s own daughter, Daba, counters by accusing Binetou’s family of fraudulently removing expensive items from the villa for their own profit. Ramatoulaye is displeased by the wrangling on both sides.
Despairing and angry, she recalls her first meeting with her future husband at a party when she was a young student at the teachers training college: “Modou Fall, the very moment you bowed before me, asking me to dance, I knew you were the one I was waiting for” (So Long a Letter, p. 13). After finishing their respective educations, Modou and Ramatoulaye married, despite the objections of Ramatoulaye’s mother, who found Modou almost “too perfect for a man” and preferred an older, more reliable suitor, Daouda Dieng, a doctor at the Polyclinique (So Long a Letter, p. 14). Meanwhile, Modou’s friend, Mawdo Ba, met and later married Ramatoulaye’s best friend, Aissatou.
Both couples settled into married life. Modou and Mawdo thrived in their chosen professions, Ramatoulaye and Aissatou raised their children, and their families enjoyed holidays together. But Aissatou’s contentment was marred by the coldness of her husband’s family, who felt Mawdo had married beneath him by choosing a goldsmith’s daughter for his wife. Aunty Nabou, Mawdo’s widowed mother and a princess from the Sine region, was particularly affronted by the marriage and planned to revenge herself on her despised daughter-in-law. One day she traveled back to the Sine and asked her brother to give her one of his daughters to educate. Young Nabou went to live with her aunt, who raised her to be docile and obedient, financed her education as a midwife, then offered her to Mawdo, now middle-aged, as a prospective bride. After Aunty Nabou claimed she would die of shame if her son refused, Mawdo consented to the marriage. Unable to accept the situation or Mawdo’s justifications for it, Aissatou left her husband, taking her sons with her. Resuming her education, Aissatou eventually obtained her current appointment as an interpreter to the Senegalese Embassy in the United States, where she enjoyed professional success. Her sons also flourished, despite the separation from their father. Ramatoulaye praised her friend warmly, declaring, “How much greater you proved to be than those who sapped your happiness!” (So Long a Letter, p. 31).
Three years after Aissatou’s departure, Rama-toulaye was faced with a similar shocking development in her own marriage. The middle-aged Modou secretly began to court Binetou, a beautiful, intelligent girl who was a friend and classmate of his own daughter, Daba. Although Binetou hoped to complete her education, her impoverished mother begged her to accept her suitor, who promised jewels, a car, and other luxuries if she left school to marry him. Ramatoulaye remained in the dark about Modou’s plans until after the wedding, when Mawdo, Tamsir (Modou’s brother), and the local Imam (religious leader) broke the news to her. Stunned and heartbroken by this disclosure, Ramatoulaye nonetheless decided to remain in her marriage, despite the urgings of her children to break with Modou.
After the marriage Modou moved in with his second wife and her family, avoiding his first wife and their children. He showered the resentful Binetou with expensive gifts and tried to appear younger and more vigorous to her. Alone, Ramatoulaye adjusted to her solitary life, taking on Modou’s responsibilities and raising her children single-handedly. Learning of her friend’s struggles, Aissatou gave her the gift of a new car. Ramatoulaye learned to drive, obtained her license, and became more independent. But despite her new autonomy, Ramatoulaye missed her husband and her marriage: “The truth is that, despite everything, I remain faithful to the love of my youth. Aissatou, I cry for Modou, and I can do nothing about it” (So Long a Letter, p. 56)
In the present, Ramatoulaye endures her fortieth day of mourning but receives an unexpected shock: Tamsir, her brother-in-law, announces his intention to marry her after the mourning period is over. Furious at his presumption, Ramatoulaye violently rejects his proposal, declaring: “You for get that I have a heart, a mind, that I am not an object to be passed from hand to hand…. I shall never be the one to complete your collection” (So Long a Letter, p. 58). Tamsir is shocked by her outburst but accepts defeat. Later, Ramatoulaye is surprised to receive a visit from her former suitor, Daouda Dieng, now a deputy at the National Assembly and still handsome and prosperous. They soon establish an easy rapport; Daouda reveals that he still loves Ramatoulaye and wishes to marry her. Although she is not in love with Daouda, Ramatoulaye considers accepting his proposal because of his kindness and the promise of financial security. But Daouda also has a wife, and Ramatoulaye ultimately decides that she cannot be part of another polygamous relationship and inflict on another woman the kind of suffering she herself has known. She writes to Daouda, explaining her feelings: “Esteem is not enough for marriage, whose snares I know from experience. And then the existence of your wife and children further complicates the situation. Abandoned yesterday because of a woman, I cannot lightly bring myself between you and your family” (So Long a Letter, p. 68). Daouda accepts her decision with regret and ceases to visit. Meanwhile, Modou’s estate is finally settled—his new villa goes to his daughter, Daba, who loses no time in evicting Lady Mother-in-Law and Binetou. Ramatoulaye retains ownership of the old villa, and Modou’s other effects are divided among his family.
Ramatoulaye occupies her days thinking about her children’s futures, especially those of her daughters. Although she tries to keep an open mind about progress, she is still shocked when she catches three of her daughters smoking and suspects they are experimenting with alcohol, too. Moreover, she discovers that another daughter, Aissatou—named for her friend—is three months pregnant. As a devout Muslim, Ramatoulaye is initially angered by this revelation, given Islam’s strong stance against premarital sex, but her love for her child ultimately triumphs over her anger. Fortunately, the girl’s lover, a law student at the university, intends to marry her after they finish their schooling; his mother will look after the child who is expected, conveniently, during the school holidays. Ramatoulaye is relieved to hear of these plans but wonders what happens to young pregnant girls who are less fortunate. She emphasizes the necessity for sexual education to her younger daughters, although she suspects that they are already more aware of the subject than she was at their age.
In the final segment of her letter, Ramatoulaye anticipates a visit from Aissatou and reveals that, in spite of her tragic experiences, she still believes in “the inevitable and necessary complementarity of man and woman. Love, imperfect as it may be in its content and expression, remains the natural link between these two beings” (So Long a Letter, p. 88). Ramatoulaye concludes by assuring Aissatou that she intends to make a new life for herself: “Despite everything—disappointments and humiliations—hope still lives on within me…. The word ’happiness’ does indeed have meaning, doesn’t it? I shall go out in search of it” (So Long a Letter, p. 89).
Women in transition
Although So Long a Letter is primarily an account of two women’s personal experience of polygamy, it also examines the larger social and historical context surrounding the stories of Ramatoulaye and Aissatou. As literary critic Florence Stratton observes, “Bâ portrays women realistically, grounding her female characters in society and making them subject to historical forces” (Stratton, p. 145). Describing the Senegalese fight for independence, Ramatoulaye writes in her diary-letter: “It was the privilege of our generation to be the link between two periods in our history, one of domination, the other of independence. We remained young and efficient, for we were the messengers of a new design. With independence achieved, we witnessed the birth of a republic, the birth of an anthem and the implantation of a flag” (So Long a Letter, p. 25).
Even more specifically, Ramatoulaye and Aissatou represent a generation of women caught between tradition and emancipation, between the often confining customs followed by their mothers and the disconcerting freedoms sought by their daughters. Both women manage to obtain secondary school educations, marry for love in spite of family disapproval, and, with their husbands, attempt to scale the social ladder and become part of the New African elite: “We all agreed that much dismantling was needed to introduce modernity within our traditions. Torn between the past and the present, we deplored the ’hard sweat’ that would be inevitable…. We were full of nostalgia but were resolutely progressive” (So Long a Letter, pp. 18-19).
Ramatoulaye and Aissatou face a challenge to their progressiveness when, after years of comfortable marriage, their husbands follow Islamic tradition by taking younger, second wives. As literary scholar Nwamaka B. Akukwe observes, tradition overwhelms their progressiveness:
The irony, however, is that having the choice [of whom to marry] alone does not guarantee [Ramatoulaye and Aissatou] freedom, as events in their respective marriages prove. They yearn for the freedom associated with life in a modern world, and they wish to shake off all of the shackles that restrain women in traditional African culture. But they realize that the traditional practices, especially those associated with male privileges, cannot be discarded overnight because they are at the heart of traditional African society.
(Akukwe in Cox, p. 78)
Of the two, only Aissatou has the audacity to break with her past by leaving Mawdo and forging a new life for herself and her sons. Ramatoulaye, by contrast, remains mired in her situation, unable to abandon her marriage or the moral values with which she was reared. Rama-toulaye’s children, especially her emancipated eldest daughter, Daba, are deeply dismayed by her decision to remain in the marriage, which proves even more bitter than she had imagined: “I had prepared myself for equal sharing, according to the precepts of Islam concerning polygamic life. I was left with empty hands” (So Long a Letter, p. 46). Even Daouda Dieng, Ramatoulaye’s former suitor, points out the discrepancy between her arguments for women’s rights and the highly traditional life she has led: “You are echoing my own speeches at the National Assembly, where I have been called a ‘feminist’…. Women must be encouraged to take a keener interest in the destiny of the country. Even you who are protesting; you preferred your husband, your class, your children to public life” (So Long a Letter, p. 62).
In the aftermath of her widowhood, Ramatoulaye remains wryly aware of the contradictions in her life, especially when dealing with her own children. Liberated Daba startles her mother by defining her own marriage as an equal partnership that can be dissolved by either party, leading Ramatoulaye to declare, not altogether approvingly, “She had her own opinions about everything” (So Long a Letter, p. 74). Moreover, despite her professed hatred of domineering matriarchs like Aunty Nabou and Lady Mother-in-Law, Ramatoulaye is shocked to find some of her daughters smoking and begins to worry about “the flow of progress” and the dangers of allowing her children too much liberty (So Long a Letter, p. 77). The revelation of another daughter’s pregnancy also disturbs Ramatoulaye, though she manages to put aside her anger and support her child: “I could not abandon her, as pride would have me do. Her life and her future were at stake, and these were powerful considerations, overriding all taboos and assuming greater importance in my heart and in my mind” (So Long a Letter, p. 83). Despite her ambivalence towards the modern world in which she must now live, Ramatoulaye remains determined to complete the transition from spurned wife to independent single woman, as Aissatou has done before her: “It is from the dirty and nauseating humus that the green plant sprouts into life, and I can feel new buds springing up in me” (So Long a Letter, p. 89).
Appropriately enough, Ramatoulaye’s epiphany corresponds with the growing women’s movement in Senegal. During the colonial period most Senegalese women had little formal schooling and remained confined to traditional gender roles as wives and mothers. Moreover, no Senegalese woman could vote until after 1946. After Senegal gained independence, however, enrollment of female students in schools increased, rising from 41,000 in 1961 to 131,000 in 1976 (Gellar, p. 101). During the early 1980s—after So Long a Letter first appeared—women constituted approximately one-third of the student population at the University of Dakar (Gellar, p. 192). The postcolonial years also saw the more active involvement of women in politics: in 1963 Caroline Diop became Senegal’s first woman deputy in the National Assembly. Changes in the status of women proceeded rapidly in urban areas, like Dakar, where women entered the work force in both skilled and unskilled positions. Meanwhile, educated women, like Mariama Ba herself and her fellow writer, Aminata Sow Fall, made significant contributions to the cultural and intellectual life of Senegal.
Sources and literary context
While Ba’s novel is not autobiographical, her use of a first-person narrator in So Long a Letter has invariably led to speculation from critics, fueled by Ba’s own apparently unhappy marriage. Scholar Florence Stratton points out, however, that there is far more resemblance between Ba and Aissatou, the narrator’s friend and projected recipient of the letter, than between Ba and Ramatoulaye: “While Ba treats her conservative heroine (Ramatoulaye) ironically, having her tell her story with subconscious evasion and revelation, she quite explicitly identifies with her radical heroine (Aissatou) who is not only a divorced woman (as Bâ herself was) but also shares Bâ’s last name” (Stratton, p. 138). Significantly, Bâ does not specify the ethnic origins of Ramatoulaye and Aissatou, perhaps to emphasize the universality of their plight as middle-aged women whose solid marriages are threatened by the addition of younger rival spouses. Unlike other African authors, like Elechi Amadi and Flora Nwapa, who present polygamy as an acceptable cultural practice in their respective novels The Concubine and Efuru (both also covered in African Literature and Its Times), Bâ takes a far darker view of the religious practice of polygamy. The balance of power in a Muslim marriage is depicted as being overwhelmingly in the husband’s favor. In So Long a Letter,”The men enjoy unlimited freedom, choosing and discarding wives as they wish, while the women are expected to keep silent and accept their lot in accordance with the divine will of Allah” (Akukwe in Cox, p. 77). Besides providing an intensely personal exploration of polygamy, Bâ’s work earned distinction as the first epistolary novel in African literature. Even today, this particular genre is seldom used. So Long a Letter has also been hailed as “the first truly feminist African novel, skillfully weaving the accounts of individual suffering and dilemmas into the exposition of [Bâ’s] thesis: the issues of women’s status in Senegal today” (Blair, p. 139).
So Long a Letter has received mixed reactions. The African critic Frederick Ivor Case expressed wonder at the fact that a literary prize (the Noma Award for Publishing in 1981) was conferred upon the novel, a text he considered “of limited value” (Case in Stratton, pp. 134-35). Femi Ojo-Ade, writing for African Literature Today, was similarly uncomplimentary, branding Ba’s feminist agenda as “an occidental phenomenon” that offered African women “a fake freedom” because it removed them from the sacred roles of wife and mother, placing them instead in a state of “social and psychological alienation” (Ojo-Ade in Stratton, p. 135). In contrast, the well-known African critic Eldred Jones applauded the work: “Mariama Bâ’s novel offers a testimony of the female condition in Africa while at the same time giving that testimony true imaginative depth” (Jones in Stratton, p. 133). Jones also praised So Long a Letter’s“maturity of vision and feeling,” adding, “[a]s a first novel, it represents a remarkable achievement” (Jones in Stratton, p. 133). Similarly, Victoria Neumark, writing for the Times Educational Supplement, praised Ba as “a Senegalese writer of rare talent,” and declared that So Long a Letter represented not an outburst of “shrill feminism” but rather, “a study in female dignity” (Neumark, p. 32). Allon White in the London Review of Books complimented the tone as well as the text: “The feminism of Senegal—a society in transition but still suffused with religious values—emerges as strongly moralistic, and engaged with paradoxes through which a generation of European feminists have already lived” (White, p. 19). For White, So Long a Letter“begins as a profound elegy for [Rama-toulaye’s] dead husband” but “ends in hope, and in political courage” (White, p. 19).
—Pamela S. Loy
Bâ, Mariama. So Long a Letter. Trans. Modupé BodéThomas Harare: Zimbabwe Publishing House, 1981.
Blair, Dorothy S. Senegalese Literature: A Critical History. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984.
Coquery-Vidrovitch, Catherine. African Women: A Modern History. Trans. Beth Gillian Raps. New York: Westview Press, 1997.
Cox, C. Brian, ed. African Writers. Vol. 1. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1997.
Gellar, Sheldon. Senegal: An African Nation Between Islam and the West. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1982.
Jomier, Jacques. How to Understand Islam. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1991.
Mazrui, Ali A. The Africans: A Triple Heritage. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1986.
Nelson, Harold D. Area Handbook for Senegal. Washington, D. C: Foreign Area Studies, 1974.
Neumark, Victoria. Review of So Long a Letter. Times Educational Supplement, 15 October 1982, p. 32.
Pedler, Frederick. Main Currents of West African History 1940-1978. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1979.
Stratton, Florence. Contemporary African Literature and the Politics of Gender. London: Routledge, 1994.
White, Allon. Review of So Long a Letter. London Review of Books, 2 September 1982, p. 19.